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Canada Chair says true reconciliation will require education

Michael Hart: "Before we can have a true reconciliation we need lots of learning to happen in Canadian society."

Photos: Don McSwiney

On March 7 the Faculty of Social Work held their annual province-wide research symposium. This year’s symposium was a special edition of the event because along with the University of Calgary, the Faculty of Social Work is also celebrating its 50th anniversary, with the theme: 50 Years of Social Justice. Fittingly this year’s theme was: Social Work Research and Social Justice: A Call to Action From the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The morning began with a keynote address by Michael Hart, PhD, RSW the Canadian Research Chair in Indigenous Knowledges and Social Work and a professor of social work with the University of Manitoba. Hart set the tone for a day of reflection as faculty, students and community research collaborators, came together to reflect on their research practices. The keynote address was streamed with faculty’s campuses in Edmonton and Lethbridge participating and asking questions.

During the presentation Hart addressed the theme of the Symposium saying, “I’m not sure how there can be a true reconciliation when the majority of the Canadian people aren’t aware of the history– aren’t aware of the continuing oppression facing Indigenous peoples. Before we can have a true reconciliation we need lots of learning to happen in Canadian society.”

Hart presented on his own Indignesit approach to social work research, an approach which privileges Indigenous perspectives, knowledge and practice that is rooted in Indigenous ways of being in the world and belief systems. Hart emphasized that social workers who are educated in the western model need to be aware that much of the philosophy and belief systems that underpin current practice are based on a particular, privileged and colonial perspective. “Social work,” says Hart, “is mostly based on the writings of dead, white, European males. They had a lot to contribute, but many other voices need to be represented in our practice.”

Hart went on to say that one of the characteristics of oppression is that those who hold the power determine what constitutes “valid” knowledge. Accordingly an Indigenist perspective has to privilege Indigenous ways of knowing and Indigenous knowledge. Hart said that when invited to collaborate in a research project he incorporates ceremony and begins with building relationships, stating that, “Relationships are reality [in Indigenous culture.] We don’t travel alone.” Accordingly Hart says he reflects a great deal on what the teachings are around a particular area and frequently consults with elders who act as a sounding board. “If they nod [in agreement,] I’ll go away and return for the next discussion,” said Hart with a smile, “if they shake their head [in disagreement] I’ll quickly go back and figure out what it is I’m missing before I return.”

Hart says that in analyzing his conversations he never uses a coding method, since that approach has a western approach built into it. He instead takes a more holistic view, which reflects the Indigenous principle that knowledge is all related. “I don’t code,” he says flatly, “coding is the process of breaking things down, taking pieces of what people said and inferring meaning. We want to see relationships and reflect on what was said overall. When I listen to a conversation I reflect on the things that were said that created an emotional response, that’s where I know the importance of what was said lies.”

The symposium continued with a ‘Global Café’ style discussion which moved the researchers around tables considering different topics. The afternoon featured a presentation of social work research in each of the University of Calgary, Faculty of Social Work’s regions (Calgary, Central and Northern Alberta and Southern Alberta.

"This is the first time that we have featured a keynote speaker in our Annual Research Symposium," stated Christine Walsh, PhD, Associate Dean Research and Partnerships. "The timing was right, in celebrating our 50th anniversary, we look back on our history and our profession’s role in the historical and continuing oppression of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Dr.Hart was the ideal person to lead us in deeply reflecting how we can move forward in ways that redress past harms and practice in ways that speak to our mandate of social justice and in doing so, optimize the aspirations of indigenous Peoples."